When I booked for my Japan trip, I was still a full blown omnivore foodie. I remember being so excited at the thought of eating some of freshest and finest sushi and sashimi from the Tsukiji fish market, indulging in authentic omurice and okonomiyaki, splurging on Kobe beef, and lining up to get my hands on the best ramen Tokyo has to offer. Japanese food has been one of my favourite cuisines of all time and it was my life long dream to go to Japan to eat… and eat some more.
This has been somewhat a moral dilemma ever since I decided to make a lifestyle change and go plant-based (i.e., free from all animal products) a few months ago. A few people have suggested that maybe I should ‘take a break’ during the holiday, compromise and become a pescetarian instead or ‘postpone’ it until after the new year. The thought did cross my mind. It will make my trip a lot easier and less complicated. I’m still only a few months into this diet, and plus, it will make a really good new year resolution.
Being a pescetarian during the trip may seem to be a good compromise, because even though I have a clear stance on not eating land animals and their products (i.e. meat, dairy and egg), I am still not sure how I feel toward the ocean creatures, especially oysters, prawns, clams and sashimi.
Sure, I could try to rationalise and justify it however I like but at the end of the day the only person who will have to live with that decision is me. So, I had to do what I feels right, and just to what I can. Just because you can’t do everything, doesn’t mean you can’t do something, anything. It’s how I got started into this whole vegan thing. I don’t see why I should stop just because it’s a holiday.
What I can do is to be as prepared as much as I can and put myself in favourable situations as much as possible. I knew that it would be a real challenge but I couldn’t give up without trying.
So, I researched online to get as much information as I could. printed all the vegan-friendly restaurants in Tokyo and Kyoto (the two main cities I visited), learned some basic Japanese, made some translation cards and then prayed for a smooth trip.
Of course, it’s not a real travel adventure without several mishaps and unexpected obstacles. Let’s face it, it’s not easy travelling with a dietary preference or peculiarity or restriction as others may see it, regardless where you go. Finding vegan food can be challenging in your own hometown, let alone in a place where you don’t read or speak the language and have no clue where you’re going. Not the mention that Japan is probably one of the least friendly places for vegetarians, let alone vegans.
Getting vegan food in Japan is particularly challenging due to a few cultural uniqueness:
- Japanese diet is fish-based. So, Japanese food commonly contain fish or fish-derived products. You can run away from sushi but you can’t hide from dashi; a cooking stock made using shavings of preserved bonito fish. They’re everywhere. In sauces, salad dressing, miso soup, everything.
- Japanese writes in Japanese – as in Japanese characters, not alphabets. Common sense stuff I know, but I was expecting to see many English translations like in many Asian countries. I was wrong. Unless you can read Japanese, checking to see if food labels or restaurant menu contain egg, milk, meat, fish and any other animal products is almost impossible.
- Japanese speaks in Japanese. Duh! Yes I know. I just wanted to say, don’t expect to find a lot of proficient English speaking Japanese outside the hotel setting. This makes conveying the fact that you don’t eat meat, egg, dairy or fish difficult. They tend to be too polite to say no and would nod in agreement, even if they don’t necessarily understand you.
What made it even more challenging for me was the fact that I was travelling with an omnivore. I didn’t want to be the ‘difficult’ one. As my boyfriend rightfully said, a few months ago I could eat ‘anything’. From that to not being able to find anything to eat (which often happens) and have to look for places to eat, is a significant change.
Almost everyone I know are omnivores and heavy meat eaters. I’m the only one with a plant-based diet in my family, my circle of friends, my workplace, and pretty much everyone else I know in real life… except an ex-colleague of mine whom I don’t see in real life but maintain friendship with through Facebook. I do plan on getting to know other vegans in the future through events and meet ups, so if you’re one, let’s be friends :)
I feel so grateful that I have a sweet and understanding man who gives me a tremendous amount of support. He associates vegan food with healthy food (vegetable = healthy) and was willing to venture and get lost in the cities with me trying to find vegan and vegan-friendly places.
The whole trip was quite an experience and a huge learning curve. Looking back, there were some things that I wished I have known and could have done better, and believe me, I will do those things next time I travel to Japan.
Here are my top 10 Japan Travel Tips For Vegan which hopefully will make things easier for you in Japan if you’re looking to maintain a vegan and vegetarian diet while you’re there:
1. Happy Cow.
A great resource to find vegetarian and vegan-friendly restaurant around Japan, and around the world. Also has an app which tells you which ones are closest to your current location.
2. Japan Guide.
Not a vegan guide but an all-round guide with forums that cover anything from transport to food. I find it invaluable when I was planning my travel itinerary.
3. Kyoto Guide.
A good website to listing some of Kyoto’s vegetarian (and vegan) dishes including recommendation for some restaurants.
4. Japan Survival Guide by Just Hungry.
A great website explaining the cultural aspect of Japan and some survival tips. It’s also where I got my vegan dining out card from. It was a lifesaver.
5. Vegetarian Survival Guide To Japan by Never Ending Voyage. Although the website caters for vegetarians, there are some great tips and food information which are very useful.
7. Google Maps.
Really helpful when trying to find places. Even the locals use it when trying to give direction.
It’s a great app that helps you figure out which train line you need to get from A to B, specifically for the JR-line. Highly recommended if you have a JR pass.
A great English/Japanese dictionary app with pronunciation functionality . You learn basic Japanese using this app.
I can’t tell you enough how important having a wi-fi access was for me, especially since I didn’t get a rental sim card with data allowance. It’s the only way I was able to check the weather, news, apps, get in touch with people at home, etc. If you can’t get a rental sim card with data then you will need to find accommodation with wi-fi connection.
11. Print lots of this vegan dining out card
Whenever I struggle to communicate what I can or can’t eat or confirming if the snacks I plan to buy are vegan, I just show this card. It was a vegan lifesaver :)
That’s it! Hope this is useful for you. Let me know if you have other vegan tips for Japan you wish to share.